Standing Again At Sinai, This Time With Facebook
Tue, 06/22/2010
Special To The Jewish Week

In recent weeks, the Jewish blogosphere has been in a state of collective shpilkas. Even before the flotilla incident, Jews in America and Israel were hotly debating two essays, Danny Gordis’ “The Storm Ahead” in the Jerusalem Post and Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” in The New York Review of Books. Whereas Gordis blames Jewish organizations for not being supportive enough of Israel — and Beinart blames Jewish organizations for not being critical enough of Israel — both despair that the upshot of those failures is today’s young Jews are increasingly disconnected from the State of Israel.

As president of the organization that supports the more than 400,000 college-age Jews worldwide, I have bad news and good news. The bad news is that Gordis and Beinart are right. For all the ways one might pick at their arguments, it is simply now a fact that the Israel narrative that compelled Jews who came of age circa 1948, 1967, and 1973, is no longer the guiding narrative for “Millennial” Jews, born after 1980. Because of different circumstances in the diaspora and in Israel, greater exposure to Israel-related information and images (distorted or otherwise), and greater access to Israel itself, young Jews today have a different, less idealized understanding of Israel than their parents and grandparents.

But here is the good news. This generation wasn’t going to accept a predetermined narrative anyway. This generation is, in fact, interested in global relationships, small-group identities, virtual texts and compelling narratives. But here’s the thing you need to know about Millennials: they have to interact with the narrative, putting their individual stamp on it, or they can’t get traction.

This is hard for those of us over 35 to understand. We were proud to inherit the narratives of the Jews (the Exodus) and Israel (“Exodus,” the movie). We rarely critiqued, much less tried to insert ourselves into, the sweeping narratives of our people. But this generation is different. When you’ve spent your entire formative years sharing your journey on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, you are simply not compelled by one-size-fits-all narratives created by others. You want to know how you can shape, reorganize and draw direct personal meaning from the Jewish narrative — or else you’re not that interested in engaging it at all.

And so for all the current handwringing about Who Lost Israel (or who’s about to lose America’s young Jews), we are missing a critical opportunity to help them reconnect to the narratives of the Jews and Israel. 

The environment is ripe. First, over 90 percent of Jews in America go to college. The college campus is literally the only place on earth where the great majority of Jews pass through, at the very moment they are interested in learning stories and where they fit into them. 

Second, there is more Jewish diversity on campus than ever in the history of the world. Peter Beinart describes a growing Orthodox community that is increasingly foreign to and dismissive of “mainstream” American Jews, but the evidence suggests the opposite. According to Orthodox Union data, since 2005 the majority of Modern Orthodox college students now does its undergraduate or graduate work at secular universities, including Ivy League schools. Add to the mix more frequent interactions with Israeli peers, both secular and religious, and you see the possibility for vibrant, authentic narrative writing that Millennial Jews are craving. 

Finally, more young diaspora Jews than ever are experiencing Israel directly. In the last 10 years, Taglit-Birthright Israel has sent more than a quarter-million young adults to climb Masada and swim in the Kinneret. They don’t come home parroting Exodus, either the Bible’s or Leon Uris’. They wrestle with how what they are seeing meshes with their own political, intellectual, cultural, and social growth, and they ask how they fit in to the Jewish story and vice versa. 

Can we guarantee how the Millennials will reshape the Jewish narrative? No. But we can guarantee the narrative stops if they don’t have the tools and experiences to engage with it on their own terms. That is why Hillel is no longer just a place for kosher food and seders away from home; we are instead a proactive movement committed to doubling the number of meaningful Jewish experiences on campus. Whether those experiences are Birthright, spring break trips to build houses in New Orleans or El Salvador, or parasha study on the green, the experiences must be meaningful, memorable and connective. And most of all, they must be theirs.

The Jewish narrative has always been organic, reinvigorated by each generation as it stands again at Sinai. The Millennials have more, not less, potential to internalize and advance this Jewish story, including the centrality of Israel. So let’s stop pointing fingers over who’s not doing enough to keep that narrative pure and unchanged. Instead, let’s ensure that today’s students have enough meaningful Jewish experiences, when they’re open to them, to help shape the narrative that will again, sustain us through the generations.

Wayne L. Firestone is the president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

 

Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.

Check out the Jewish Week's Facebook page and become a fan!  And follow the Jewish Week on Twitter: start here.

 

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.

Comments

Bravo to Hillel for recognizing that young adults want to play their part in shaping their Jewish experience. As a rabbi, I don't think college campuses are the only place for this. I sincerely hope that all Jewish institutions will invite people (in an inclusive and welcoming way) to participate in shaping their Jewish experience. If we keep doing what we've always done, we'll always get the same results we've always gotten. In other words, the time is ripe for change and for reexamining Jewish institutions, their success, and their roles (or lack thereof) in people's lives. At www.OurJewishCommunity.org we've created a new model for 21st century Judaism - inclusive, engaging, contemporary. We welcome people to our online synagogue - and we are intrigued by what others are doing to help build the Jewish present - and future. In the words of Rabbi Hillel, "if not now, when?"
All right. What is this article about? What are these comments about? OK. Hillel and Chabad, please, continue your great work! I love it! But it is not enough! Where are the parents of the kids who are born in the 90th? Are not they were the ones to support Israel in '80s and '90s. These parents are also very active adults. What do they do now? Where are they? Do they support Israel now as they did before? Majority of them is indifferent. Oh, please, agree. I see it in the communities around me. If the parents will not show the example, the children will not follow. Another thing - Jewish people in US don't understand to which degree we need Israel. What is extremely scary is that "a proactive movement committed to doubling the number of meaningful Jewish experiences on campus" does not really work. No questions, we need all of these on campus. But i am really scared for my kids who will be entering college in a few years...
Yes, it is most important for the Hillel Movement to continue to reach out to the Jewish students on campus. As far as the student body of today is concerned, there was always an Israel. To them 1948 is truly "past history". Now, sixty two years later, we have lived through almost three generations. The Jewish community (diaspora) and Israel face totaly new chalanges. A new kind of anti-semstism has evolved. The new cry is, "delegitimize Israel". Unfortunately it is gaining traction. We can not let our young people begin to sympathize with that theroy. Some are. It's up to Hillel and Chabad, who are in the college community to "set the story straight". Hopefuly they will and the college students will rally in support of Israel.
I am not convinced that today's Jewish college students will continue to identify with their heritage in an active way. Intermarriage is at an all-time high, and Israel trips to strengthen Jewish identity do not seem to suffice in many cases (including my sister and cousins, born in the 70's who married non-Jews). Israel is being attacked by many foreigners on the military, political, economic, and other fronts, and the outcry from the Jewish college campus scene is drowned out by the cacophony of others. I am writing from the Holy Land, and hope that the tide will turn to the positive direction.
As student president of a university Hillel, I could not agree more with this article. It is becoming increasingly hard to get students involved in activities even though, like the article says, we are integrating within the bigger campus community more each year. Although our students think that free meals are great, they are no longer enough to keep students coming back week after week. Innovation is key for this generation. We need to mix it up and think outside of the box. They really do want a social and, at sometimes, religious experience during their college career and Hillel can give that to them. It opens doors to people that they never would have experienced without it. The Jews of this generation, as I am one of them, want to make their own path and do Judaism in their own way. And there is nothing wrong with not doing the same exact thing that our parents and grandparents did. If you give this generation of students something to change, they will...just in their own way.
The disconnectedness with our Jewishness and our Judaism, let alone Israel, is not relegated to one generation or another. And if we are focusing on those born after 1980, there are many passionate connection points for our Jewish young adults. The first is Hillel. My first hand experience in watching and financially contributing to two Hillel communities, one at the University of Vermont and the other at Vanderbuilt University, has shown me the power for our community. The connectedness and the possibilities for our Jewish future. Here is article that show cases just one story http://www.forward.com/articles/128655/. This storyteller has impacted every young Jew he has meant. And G-D willing he will continue on this path. The on campus experience, a community which thrives and lives both through a brick and motar experience and social media experience supports our Jewish future. We as adults need to stop evaluating the future for Jews, Judaism and Israel through our life's rear view mirror. We are living in a new world. Our communities are not neighborhood based. There are no boundaries to the possibilities as long as we participate through our own involvement and financial contribution.

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.